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The future of facilitation – feature


As facilitation continues its unstoppable rise, Michael Dawson talked to the directors of Roffey Park about why some commonly-held views about it need to be updated.

Some see facilitation as confined to the world of training and development. This is where many facilitators started out but others came to it through the world of participatory decision-making and community development.

"Facilitation has for many years now gone beyond developers," said Suzanne Penn, Programme Director at Roffey Park. "It has also gone beyond line managers who want to facilitate their teams and more senior executives who want to improve the performance of multinational project groups. Today, facilitation is used at every level in organisations and it is now reaching out into communities, finding a home whenever and wherever groups of any kind get together. But as it grows, the roles of facilitators and the nature of facilitation itself need to be challenged."

So, facilitation now spans a diverse and growing field. For many it is now a distinct discipline with its own set of competencies and ethics. These are promoted by organisations like the International Association of Facilitators, whose last worldwide conference attracted 700 delegates.

Another dramatic change has been that the size of groups which can be facilitated has become almost limitless. Facilitation is the essential core element through which large-group engagement processes - such as Open Space Technology, Future Search and even Appreciative Inquiry - secure wide-scale commitment to change. While these events may ultimately involve many of the same skills that are used to facilitate smaller groups, they demand a whole new approach to planning and preparation. As such, they present a very different challenge for facilitators.

Challenging perspectives

Beliefs about how facilitators add value also need to be scrutinised. For example:

A good facilitator needs to be popular. For some a good facilitator is simply a 'good egg' who can chair a meeting. Whilst the role of the facilitator is often to help a group reach a consensus or decide on a course of action, this often requires them to question existing ways of doing things. This will not always make them popular.

"The issue of challenging the group is particularly important for internal consultants," said Andy Smith, Assistant Director of Roffey Park. "When something radical is called for, the facilitator should be more challenging. They should ask difficult questions which are fundamental or which draw attention to difficult process issues which the group may find uncomfortable. Sometimes the facilitator is there to surface the grit in the oyster and maybe to be that grit themselves."

Suzanne Penn adds that good facilitators cannot afford to shy away from the difficult situations: "Some facilitators feel intimidated about intervening with more senior managers or with people exhibiting disruptive behaviour," she said. "But you can't be effective in the role if you are frightened of making a mistake or of not being popular. You need to develop skills and strategies to overcome these barriers."

The facilitator should know the answer to the problem. This myth has certainly been exploded. Indeed, the need to remain impartial is now recognised as one of the biggest challenges of effective facilitation.

"Unless you're aware of your role and of your own values and behaviours, you may not serve the group as well as you'd like," said Suzanne Penn. "If you have a pre-determined outcome that you want the group to reach, that's not facilitation: that's manipulation. The challenge is to influence the group but not to dominate, suppressing your ideas/solutions and encouraging others to talk."

The content of the meeting is more important than the process. Novice facilitators often fall down here.

"People assume that facilitation is straightforward but often they're making the fundamental mistake of concentrating on the issues involved, not the underlying process," said Suzanne Penn. "Instead of focusing on the subject matter of the meeting, good facilitators pay most of their attention to the process level, which sits below the content and relates to how people feel about taking part. That's where you get the politics and the interaction between group members. Facilitating at a process level can mean ensuring that you have appropriate working methods to offer a group, but more challengingly it's very much about observation, judgement and well-timed interpersonal interventions."

Effective facilitators are seen to be doing lots of things. Sometimes the best facilitation is when a group reach an outcome, and the participants feel that they have done it themselves, arguably this may even be a goal for a facilitator in order to build confidence and capability within groups.

Suzanne Penn says: "Taking this kind of approach is much harder work than it looks – holding back can be exhausting! You also need to have the confidence in any situation to decide how best you can add value – whether that's through facilitating in a dynamic active style, or in a subtler perhaps more empowering way."

It can be problematic either way to judge your own effectiveness and contribution. "Facilitation is an art not a science and I always come away scratching my head and wondering what I could have done differently," said Suzanne Penn.

She adds that facilitators should strive to evaluate their role by reviewing with participants about where the group ended up and whether or not it was worthwhile. She also advises that facilitators should reflect on their own practice and review their performance against their own assessment criteria. Ask yourself, for example, did you experiment with something new, take any risks, raise the difficult issues? Could you have handled a situation better? Should you have intervened earlier?

Continuing the rise

Andy Smith believes that facilitation is poised to become an even more important skill set for managers.

"In the future, managers are less likely to know all the details about the specific areas of expertise of their team members," he said. "Instead, the value they will add will be increasingly to help these people find solutions and new approaches. On a one-to-one basis this has a considerable cross-over with coaching. But with groups, whether small or large, facilitation is becoming one of the most imperative skill sets of all."


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